SF/F writers often write about geniuses, so this draft of an article soon going onto my Web site may be useful to you.
Real Geniuses: What are they Like?
Recently I had lunch with a former colleague from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. This is a large research and engineering facility built on a hillside in Pasadena, California, less than a mile from the Rose Bowl stadium and sports park. We fell to chatting about our favorite movies and TV programs, among them Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory. Both of which we find still funny the Nth time around, unusual among sitcoms and movies.
Big Bang Theory follows four geniuses who work at CalTech, the California Institute of Technology. It manages JPL and thus we ourselves had shared the same rarefied intellectual and physical space of the four characters. We tried to recall examples of the brilliant scientists and engineers we'd known who were similar to the four. We had only small success, despite having known some fairly colorful characters.
The reason is simple. Real geniuses usually don't resemble their stereotypes. What ARE they like? Here is the answer.
Bright and brilliant people come in all shapes and sizes and looks. A statistical diagram of most measures (such as height, strength, weight) would show the bell-shaped curve familiar to most of us. Most curves of geniuses lean slightly toward the right, associated with greater height, muscularity, and healthiness.
In other words, geniuses are slightly more fit than the average population. The reason is obvious once you give it a bit of thought. The brain is one of several organs; it's part of a whole. If it works well, it's partly because it's (for example) well supplied with blood. Major advances in any art or science also require their creators to work hard and long, and that's helped by a strong, healthy body.
Don't despair, however, if you cherish the belief that "nerds" and "geeks" look weird and scrawny and maybe downright ugly. Statistics ensures that your prejudice can find SOME examples. But beware using those epithets around brilliant people. Some of them are quite large and easy to offend!
The principals of The Big Bang Theory are all emotionally stunted, childlike. Which is why so many of their antics are funny. (The same is true of A Modern Family; some of the children are more mature than the adults.)
Again, this is unlike most geniuses, who show the same distribution of most emotional traits as the rest of us. But there are several ways the stereotype approaches truth.
To achieve greatly in any field you have to be fairly optimistic, at least about the chances of success in your field. Where success might yield any of several rewards: money, fame and respect, sex, freedom.
You have to be open to change and newness. Though like most of us geniuses often resist it at first. But if you suggest a change or a new idea, AND THEN LEAVE THEM ALONE, often after a time the suggestion will sink in and the next thing you know they are enthusiastically selling the idea to you.
You have to be stubborn. Great success depends on Edison's "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration."
You have to like or even need solitude. A genius needs a dearth of distractions to get their best thinking done.
"Nerds" are stereotypically socially inept. Again, more often geniuses have a wide distribution of social skills. But here the bell-shaped curve leans more to the right, to great skill.
Because bright people better understand the need for others to their success and happiness. And they better understand how to get it, whether "it" is funds for their work, permission to get and use equipment or aides or material, or any other resource. You will never meet a more charming con artist than a scientist who wants more time on a multi-million dollar particle accelerator!
Geniuses can be social magnets. They are often powerful in their fields, witty, and able to bend their minds to understanding you. Which can be immensely attractive. But also dangerous, because they can be very manipulative. They also bore easily. Many a beautiful woman or gorgeous man have had their hearts broken by a suddenly cold lover.
Stereotypes of brilliant people assume they have perfect memory. Wrong. A perfect memory is a handicap. Someone with a perfect memory literally may not recognize their son in the evening because in that short time the son grew noticeable stubble. This made him look like a stranger.
Geniuses instead have an excellent “forgetter.” This improves their ability to see the shape of important matters because it suppresses unimportant details. This process is called abstraction, because it abstracts out the important matters. All good thinkers know this process. This is why smart people may put aside a problem overnight or longer, because the fading of memory often gives us a better perspective on the problem.
A study of chess masters showed that they do not have superior raw memory. Instead they almost literally see patterns of pieces such as “forks”: where a piece threatens two opponent pieces, forcing the opponent to sacrifice one of them. Chess masters also sense larger patterns, as when a match has gone from the begin-game to mid-game to end-game. Different tactics are required in those different phases of the game. This ability to find general patterns is crucial for anyone doing intellectual tasks.
What bright people do have, rather than a superior memory for information, is a superior ability to FIND information. They are virtuosos in the library and on the internet - and when questioning people about some matter. Great detectives have this ability to great degree.
The genius stereotype also credits them as super calculators. But true geniuses don’t need to burden their minds with this ability when a $4 disposable calculator will do the job. Math geniuses also have the ability mentioned earlier to find patterns. They may thus be able to just glance at a page of numbers and say “Something doesn’t look right” - though they can’t say what until they can study the page better. Or more likely give that study to some lesser or less-experienced mind while they go on to more important matters.
Madness and genius
Madness and genius are sometimes said to be alike. Studies have shown there is some truth to this idea. But what the studies rarely show is that the two are also very un-alike. And how they are different.
Both schizophrenics and creative people may have visual and auditory “hallucinations” and a feeling of disconnection from the present reality. The differences are two. One, the creative artist or scientist or engineer knows that their experience comes from within, rather than from God or other supernatural source which is giving them commands or esoteric knowledge.
More important, the highly creative are in control. They learn to squelch or amplify their fantasies and direct them to suit their ends. An artist or writer “seeing” a scene that does not exist can paint or verbalize the scene. They can also use several scenes to make a larger whole, such as a tapestry or a story.
They can increase the flow of imagery and sound using several techniques which artists and knowledge workers have invented over the years. Or suppress it if needed. Or re-direct it as needed.
This means what?
Stereotypes both capture and badly distort essential truths. Thus they make us believes that geniuses are somehow not human. The reverse is true. They are as much part of the human race as the rest of us. In fact, in the above descriptions chances are that any number of times you have recognized some of the traits of genius in you yourself.